Kevin is a deft examination of the nihilism attendant to the privileged life (admittedly not the most groundbreaking topic in the world, but bear with me). Boredom forms a thin membrane holding in the revulsion and anger that the narrator Eva feels towards the crass, meaningless world she inhabits. Her decision to have a child is an attempt to overcome that boredom, to sublimate that underlying rage into a (pro)creative act. The result, Kevin, rather than giving her the liberating experience of engaging with something new and different from herself, is in fact only the embodiment of her own destructive feelings in an angry boy with a strong sense of the absurd and an incapacity to care for others. Following the motherhood-as-artistic-act metaphor, Eva learns that creation does not afford an escape from herself but only drives her further into solipsism. She cannot make something new but can only rearrange what is already within her, and not for the better.
Kevin's drive to reveal the emptiness of what is held sacred, demonstrated in his destruction of Eva's cherished maps.
Eva and the Kevins, from the 2011 film adaptation of the novel.
Several novels come to mind: Frankenstein (1818) shares with Kevin the theme of creation gone wrong (... and killing everyone you know). Carrie (1974) is also about warped maternal relationships, the trauma of adolescence, and the connection between sexuality and violence.
Illustration of Frankenstein and the Creature (Berni Wrightson, 1983)
Samuel Richardson's Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740), however, is the big-name (in literary criticism anyway) precursor in this tradition, so I'll focus on that. [Note: John Mullan has also written about the epistolary form in Kevin and mentions Pamela as a predecessor.] Written about 250 years before Kevin, Pamela is associated with the birth of popular culture--it was a best-seller, generating early fanworks, town-wide reading groups, and many unauthorized sequels and parodies by writers hoping to profit off its success. It is also associated with controversy, as many pointed out that the repeated sexual assaults on Pamela, though successfully fended off and ultimately defeated by the virtue of love and marriage--well, you are rolling your eyes now, I'm sure, and so were 18th-century readers. Tacked-on moral or not, the novel was still all about sex.
Mr. B spies on Pamela undressing (Joseph Highmore, 1743-4)
Likewise, Kevin was Shriver's big break, a runaway popular and critical success. Its controversial subject matter caused Shriver's own agent as well as dozens of others to turn it away, asking her to make the story less ambivalent, less violent... to give the reader the comfort of a clear moral and a clear winner. But in the epistolary novel, psychological truth is everything, and moral and motivational ambivalence are unavoidable in the intensive self-evaluations the narrators' letters facilitate. The question comes up, both against Pamela and Eva, of their reliability--whether they are telling the "facts," delusional, or actually vindictively manipulating the people around them (including the reader). But this form is not about the empirical truths an omniscient, impersonal narrator could provide. It is about questioning yourself, which undermines your epistemological grounds.
Additionally, both Kevin and Pamela are about bad men and the women who love and refuse to leave them. Kevin is disturbingly sexualized throughout the novel so at first it most strongly reminded me of Lolita, though of course the story takes a very different shape when the genders are reversed. Kevin and Pamela are about a woman writer under the continual malevolent surveillance of a man who inflicts increasing torments on her, escalating towards a seemingly inevitable apotheosis of violence. Rather than LEAVING, which the reader is constantly urging the narrator to do (at the same time continuing to turn the pages, eagerly seeking that violent moment), the women simply observe and record, hoping that their men will change.
In the end, both do. Decisively, in Pamela (Mr. B becomes a devoted husband, out promoting his wife's novel and throwing her elaborate dinner parties) and the 21st-century-equivalent-of-decisively in Kevin (Kevin gives his mom back the prosthetic eye he stole from his dead sister's body so that Eva can give it a proper burial). Pamela settles into domestic bliss, and Eva sets up a bedroom in hopeful anticipation of her son's eventual return. Letter-writing thus functions as an outlet for the woman's desire to engage with the outside world, to feel that she is an agent and can communicate, while keeping her safely within bourgeois domestic space (and, yes, I recognize the irony of me blogging about this--recognize and ignore). While Eva was once a globetrotting travel writer, as Kevin becomes a greater part of her life she retreats, confining herself to the home and defining herself solely in relation to a man who goes out and acts on the world. Given that Pamela is set in the eighteenth century, it's no surprise that she does the same. However, though Pamela stops writing, there is no indication that Eva will. Yet this provides little reassurance, returning us to the problem that begins the novel: creation to alleviate boredom only re-shapes and adds to the chaos that is always there.